Brighton, and to a lesser extent Hove, actually, are known for being hubs of the performing arts. It’s certainly a reputation preferable to that which surrounds the infamous West Street, home of stag and hen parties, bargain drinks deals and all the vomit the city’s seagulls could desire.
With my naturalised Brightonian snobbery out of the way, and glossing over the fact that fifteen years ago I’d be at the other end of that gibe, let’s talk about a cross-media production I wrote a short story for!
Insomnia is a theatre piece interspersed with pre-recorded video segments and (a minimal) amount of audience interaction, further supported by fiction and a pen and paper RPG, all of which explore its characters and the central themes of insomnia and what may lie beyond sleep. It’s the brainchild of a friend, Rose Clark, starring herself and three others, and comes courtesy of the ZLS Theatre company and its associated Hove Grown writing festival. Insomnia ran four dates in March, but the grapevine suggests it may see another run later this year if all goes according to plan, which is fantastic.
Without going into too much detail, the performance alternates between four different characters, each occupying a different time and place. Two exist in an approximation of the present day; another occupies a fantasy reality, and a fourth a Martian colonisation effort. One of the two present-day characters is the chap I was asked to write a short story about.
It was quite an odd challenge, being asked to write whatever I liked in service of a character in a performance I had not seen. The information I was given was essentially the Cliff Notes of that character’s life, recounted from memory by his inventor, alongside a note about which small segment of said life would actually appear in the play. The rest was mine to use – or not – as I saw fit.
I don’t want to spoil any aspect of the performance itself, but I do want to talk a little about what I wrote, as I’m not sure whether that story will see the light of day outside of its post-performance distribution.
After thinking about what would be central to the character as seen by the live audience, I decided that how he arrived at that place was the story I needed to explore. Aspects of the character resonated with me – which is of course why his story was earmarked for me – and so I drew on outsider experiences of isolation and social anxiety to paint three scenes from his life.
I was also keenly aware that Insomnia was to be a cross-media production and that its many parts would interrelate. I didn’t want my story to be any different, but I was operating on very limited information concerning anything outside ‘my’ character. I did spot a frog motif in the character story I’d been given, and from a love of classic SF I constructed a fondness for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels. I also invented a woman’s voice intruding from somewhere outside this character’s conception of time and space. All three decisions ended up working very well: frogs appeared repeatedly in the pre-shot video segments (Paul McCarthy’s Frog Song clearly rang deep in many childhoods), Mars was an important detail in two other characters’ stories, and… well, mysterious otherworldly voices are a fair guess when you’re dealing with a production about insomnia that you already know delves into the fantastic and the SFnal.
Anyway, it was a lot of fun writing these three scenes, stitching them together into a narrative that leads inexorably to where the character is as the performances themselves begin. Character was always a weakness with my fiction in the past, something that I recognised but never knew how to fix, but I’ve been encouraged by the experience of building a story from someone else’s character study. I’m very pleased to have been able to write something for an unusual, experimental production, and I’m equally pleased that it’s given me some confidence to try writing my own fiction again – something I’ve largely not attempted in about six years.
Do check out the performance if you have the opportunity!